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California AVAs as splintered broomsticks in “Fantasia”

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The Federal government, in its bureaucratic wisdom, is exhaustive in spelling out the rules and regulations concerning American Viticultural Areas, defining everything from the percentage of grapes required to originate from the AVA to the point size of the appellation on the label. So complex has the process become that the Tax and Trade Bureau, the responsible agency, issued a 27-page Manual for Petitioners.

But there’s one thing that TTB does not and cannot do, and that is to describe the organoleptic qualities a particular AVA should have. Nowhere in the Manual will you find a description of, for instance, what the Cabernet Sauvignons of Happy Canyon ought to taste like, much less how (or if) they differ from the Cabernets of Paso Robles or Atlas Peak.

Petitioners to the government, who wish to establish a new AVA, need to document all sorts of things: not only where the proposed boundaries are, but upon what criteria they were established; how and why the proposed name is “appropriate”; whether or not the proposed name could be confused by consumers with existing brand names; how the AVA’s “distinguishing features” differentiate it from surrounding areas, and so on. So extensive are all these regulations that AVA petitioners usually must hire professionals to prepare the paperwork, and the process itself lasts for years.

Wine writers, of course, have a different set of concerns. We like knowing about the technical stuff (that’s why they call us geeks), but above and beyond everything else, we insist on trying to understand just what it is about any particular AVA that expresses itself in the resulting wines. This understanding can be elusive; it’s the stuff of endless seminars and studies, none of which is ever conclusive and probably never can be. Call it the Wine Writers Full Employment Act: as long as there are AVAs, there will be people struggling to analyze them. Including me. My latest excursion into AVA Land is with the upcoming Pinot Noir Summit, where, after some back and forth with the organizers, I finally decided on this topic for my panel: Carneros vs. Russian River Valley: Is there a difference?

It sounds a little simplistic, but the best questions are the most fundamental ones. After all, if there’s not a difference between two neighboring appellations, then why bother with appellations in the first place?

I doubt if we (the panelists and the audience) will arrive at any firm conclusions, but that doesn’t prevent the exercise from being fun and informative. Myself, I have a generalized sense of Carneros Pinot Noir with respect to Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. In my mind, the former wines are more acidic, lighter in body, earthier and more minerally than the latter wines, which tend to be bigger, richer and heavier. This is mainly due to Carneros being cooler than most of the valley, and also to its soils, which have large quantities of water-retaining clay.

But the devil is in the details. The Carneros appellation spreads from the flatlands alongside San Pablo Bay (which I think of as bas Carneros) to the foothills of the lower Mayacamas (haut Carneros), meaning that soils and temperatures can vary significantly. Meanwhile, the Russian River Valley itself shows huge terroir differences, the most important of which being that the climate varies significantly from the cooler, foggier southern portions to the warmer, drier area along Westside Road.

Thus the effort to discern regional distinctions will be hampered. This difficulty is made all the more problematic by winemaking techniques (especially picking decisions), which vary from winery to winery and can mask the wine’s underlying terroir.

Do you remember the broomstick scene from the 1940 Disney movie, Fantasia? It’s one of the most remarkable feats of animation ever. Mickey Mouse “borrows” the Sorcerer’s hat and makes a broomstick come to life to perform his chores. Alas, the broomstick does the work a little too well: the next thing Mickey knows, he’s drowning. Attempting to stop the broomstick, Mickey takes a hatchet to it, and chops. And chops. Each splinter turns into a new broomstick that ruthlessly, robotically, mechanically repeats the original broomstick’s function–until Mickey finds himself in a nightmare, saved only by the sudden reappearance of the Sorcerer, who reclaims his hat, and all is well, except that a chastened Mickey has to resume his work.

I sometimes feel AVAs are like that broomstick. They metastasize endlessly; currently, no fewer than 14 new ones are pending in California alone, on top of the hundred-plus we already have. And just as Mickey was overwhelmed with all those marching broomsticks, the poor wine writer sometimes flounders to understand all of California’s AVAs.

No doubt a technical case can be made for each, but from a terroir point of view, it can be very hard to detect a rationale. One likes to think there is a rationale. If we can’t discern the rationale (we tell ourselves), it’s not because there isn’t a defining terroir, it’s because we are insufficiently qualified to find it. We thus take the burden of proof onto ourselves. Which is why I’m doing this Carneros vs. Russian River panel. It obviously won’t be definitive, but it might get us a little closer to the truth.

  1. Gary Eberle says:

    I guess I should have been born in Missouri. Paso Robles is currently under consideration for a large number of new AVA’s. In my 40+ years here I have yet to have anyone be able to show me a real and constant difference from grapes grown around the different parts of the current Paso AVA in spite of how large it is and diverse the vineyards. I have been fooled so many times in blind tastings as to where wines are from arounnd the AVA that I no longer even try. Too many variables. The only thing that remains the same is the soil the roots are in. I’ve seen grapes from a warmer part of Paso exhibit cooler climate character and grapes from cooler areas come out pruney and raisiny. I will go along with whatever is decided, but to me the only AVA that is important is Paso Robles. Gotta go, soap box colapsing under so much of my BS.

  2. Gee, Steve, won’t you find so much variation with RRV, as you have pointed out, that the exercise is undermined by the very AVA boundaries itself. You may or may not prove what the difference is between the two AVAs, but, even with Carneros, there is significant difference depending on where in the AVA one is.

    It almost sounds like you can prove that the current AVA boundaries are nonsense, and in that, you will get a fair degree of agreement.

  3. My frustration with AVAs (being a winegrower in Virginia) is how many wine writers — at least those who pay attention to Virginia — will use the existing AVAs as an organizing principle and write primarily about the wineries that are in those AVAs, thus ignoring the majority of wineries that have not yet gone to the trouble of trying to establish one. See, for example, Andrew Hoover’s article in Wine Enthusiast from a year ago, “The Old Dominion’s Upswing” (February 15, 2013). http://www.winemag.com/March-2013/The-Old-Dominions-Upswing/

    On one level, I can’t say that I blame them, since they have to start somewhere if they don’t know the Commonwealth as well as a local, but on the other hand, if an AVA is intended to personify some defining characteristic of the region that translates into something unique in the bottle, then being such a young region it doesn’t really work the way it does in Europe. You’ll have growers with Cabernet Franc in the Shenandoah Valley (a much cooler region generally), but also around Charlottesville in the Piedmont, which is a bit warmer with a longer growing season. We’re further south where its even warmer, drier, and with a longer growing season, although we are still in the Piedmont.

    Perhaps if a trade body (or — horrors — some government body) stepped forward and worked towards defining the style for a region the AVAs would have real meaning the way they do in Italy with its DOC or DOCG’s rules, or in France with its AOC rules; Germany and Austria have theirs, as does Spain. I haven’t checked all of Europe, but maybe each European country has theirs. Since the rules control what is grown in a particular region because a consensus has been reached by centuries of cultivation, and in some cases vinification techniques, then yes, the appellation appearing on the label definitely tells the consumer something. As you note, not so in the US, since we don’t have that structure, and probably never will.

    I’d hate to see the workers at the TTB take on that task. Those I’ve dealt with there are wonderful human beings, but the agency is tasked with tax collection and implementing government regulations, not dealing with the finer points of wine.

    I’ve reached the conclusion that the only people who care about the AVAs are those intimately involved in them — the growers, the wine makers, the winery owners, and wine writers. I suspect that the public isn’t good good enough at geography to appreciate where Carneros is, or the Russian River Valley — they just see “Napa Valley” on the label. I only know about Carneros and Russian River from having lived in San Francisco many years ago.

    But that said, I’m toying with the idea of petitioning for an AVA for our own region, just so the wine writers will give us a little loving. And maybe having one will encourage more wine growers to develop vineyards there, and attract more wine makers.

  4. It’s happening in the Willamette Valley as well. While there are certainly subtle differences in climate and soil types in different parts of the valley, dividing them all into tiny AVA’s after 40 years of winemaking seems premature at best. many AVA’s are roughly drawn, and many distinct viticulture areas don’t have the political capital and will to draw AVA lines. While I believe in the concept, I feel like it is mostly a business decision that neighboring vineyards create to bump up the cost of grapes. Anyway, I mostly agree with what you’re saying: there are definitely differences between AVA’s, but sometimes a few big ones are better than a million small ones

  5. @Charlie Olken, you’re right, but it’s always fun to do these kinds of tastings (as you know), and it can’t hurt.

  6. California AVAs will never have a consistent style or flavor profile simply because they’re all way too big. Look at the relative sizes compared to communes in Burgundy:

    Vosne-Romanée 1.42 sq mi
    Morey-Saint-Denis 3.02 sq mi
    Gevrey-Chambertin 9.56 sq mi
    Carneros 90 sq mi
    Russian River Valley >150 sq mi

    And (as Steve) mentioned, picking decisions make a big difference. Given the (usually) better weather and longer growing season in California, I think there’s a wider range of potential pick days than in Burgundy, which adds to the wider range of styles/flavors.

    IMHO, in California, it’s more important to know the style of the winemaker first, then consider the AVA and/or vineyard. I think within winemaking styles, you’ll see a recognizable distinction between AVAs. I usually can pick out RRV vs SLH vs SRH when I taste our wines along side Siduri, AP Vin, Kosta Browne, etc. But if you add in some IPOB producers, then it gets too confused – where I might mistake an IPOB SRH Pinot for something from the Sonoma Coast, or even Oregon. Of course, I mistakenly identify AVAs all the time. Hell, I even miss the planet sometimes ;) I could have sworn that wine last night was a Martian Viognier :D

  7. Paso Vintner says:

    Great article – couldn’t agree more. Mr. Eberle is 100% correct, Paso Robles is currently slated to be sliced into a million more AVA’s that only make sense to a very small handful of people here. Mind you, those people are NOT the consumers.

    If I had a dime for every person met out of California – especially those in the east – who have asked me “So, where in Napa is Paso Robles??” Let’s just say I’d be a rich person right about now.

    While it is true consumers are more and more sophisticated these days with regards to wine varietals and wine regions, we are by no means in a place to start dumbing-down wine labels by printing all of these individual AVA’s on them that only make sense to the vineyard owner or the marketing guy on staff. It is short-sighted and will now take heavy education efforts at every level: tastings, sales calls, and websites, etc. etc.

    We all absolutely need to be focusing our efforts on total AVA harmony and not slicing up the pie so much. Indeed, in addition to the drought we are dealing with, the coming nightmare of a divided Paso Robles may also become a reality. Time will tell….

  8. Bill Crowley says:

    The political connections variable (not part of TTB regulations, but part of the reality of decision-making) for AVAs helps explain some of the AVA nonsense. The recent enlargement of the Russian River Valley was purely Gallo at work and no proof was ever put forth that anyone ever thought of the newly added area as being in the Russian River Valley (something different than Russian River drainage). Ask people in Cotati or Rohnert Park if they live in the RRV!! There are plenty of other examples of such shenanigans.

    But your Fantasia parallel surely works for what happened in Lodi and for what may happen in Paso Robles. And don’t ever forget we’ve got lawyers at work here who help people think they need to AVAtize their own little part of an exisiting AVA.

    As to one commenter comparing the size of AVAs to Burgundy AOCs, remember that Maconnais, Cote Chalonnaise, and Burgundy itself are also AOCs (AOPs) and they’re not as small as the communal AOCs cited. The French are far from perfect in that regard.

    Finally, we need remember that not all wines from a given Burgundy climat (since a given climat is generally subdivided amongst various owners) are identical. It’s not just the land, even in France; human decisions from picking time to barrel source, to time in wood, to rootstock and on and on all impact the final organoleptic response.

    Thanks for another thoughtful piece Steve.

  9. Jason Ledbetter says:

    Brian Loring,
    Stags Leap Distract AVA is 2 square miles. I think the greatest differences for me are most evident within the Napa sub AVAs. Considering the distinct differnces with Howell Mountain, Stags Leap and say Rutherford. I do believe, as you say, that picking decisions and fermentation practices for that matter, will play a role in showcasing each AVA. On a broad consumer level I think the amount of exposure and thought given to the more notorious AVAs gives these AVAs more distinction to lesser known areas. But I also believe that the most basic consumer could see the difference between Russian River Pinot and Carneros Pinot.
    The biggest issue I see with AVAs in the US is that the majority are too large though. But I believe this is the circumstance of developing new areas for grape growing. In my opinion Napa is such a storied area and has garnered so much attention from the late 70s on, we have been able to showcase the major differences within the AVAs because of the large boom in interest in the area, which are no doubt reflected in the variation of price per ton of grapes from each AVA. But maybe this just solidifies your point that the majority of AVAs are just so large and broad outside of Napa.

  10. The Russian River Valley Winergrowers recently announced their “Neighborhoods Initiative” , and effort to better define the neighborhoods within the RRV, show their distinct taste profiles, as well as the similarities that unite them as RRV wines. This is a long term project involving growers, vintners, sommeliers, and other knowledgeable industry representatives. I think this will do a lot to educate not only the consumer, but also the grower and wine professional about the Russian River Valley.

  11. @Jason – good points regarding Howell Mountain, Stags Leap, Rutherford, etc. Those Napa AVAs are definitely small enough to have meaning.

    And to get off on a tangent…
    As to Carneros vs RRV, it’s my general impression that Carneros vineyards are planted to older clones or selections of Pinot – and how much that plays into differences between the AVAs. I often wonder what “Carneros Pinot” may taste like in the future if more Dijon clones are introduced? Of course, I could be wrong about the clones planted, in which case… never mind ;)

  12. @Gary Eberle I was born in Missouri. It’s true we started it…

  13. Having recently submitted a petition to the TTB for an AVA that I believe will be one of the smaller and perhaps the most terroir-driven AVA in the US, I have some thoughts on this matter. Obviously, most AVAs are all about marketing. I live in the Walla Walla Vally AVA, which is not particularly large, but within it’s boundaries the physical conditions that affect grape-growing vary dramatically (400 to 2000 ft elevation range, 10 to 24 in of annual rainfall, soils composed of silt and cobblestones). As a consequence, it’s absurd to speak of “Walla Walla Valley” terroir.It would be equally absurd to speak of Napa Valley or Paso Robles terroir. The affects of terroir are only truly discernible within regions that are much smaller than those enclosed by most existing AVAs. I therefore applaud and would encourage the trend toward ever smaller AVA’s, especially if their boundaries are drawn to coincide with natural physical boundaries that actually affect viticulture (soil series, geology, elevation, etc.).

  14. Stirring the pot as usual… good angle Steve. RRV vs Carneros should create a good bit of discussion. I would agree with your “general” descriptions of each, but they are just that… general. Depending on how granular you want to get, there’s many ways to slice and dice each region (and I have a huge appreciation for both.) That said, I am curious about the percentage of wine consumers that understand the connection of the various labels / identifiers ie… California – Sonoma County – Russian River Appellation – Laguna Ridge / and where that connection starts to trail off? I like the various distinctions and believe there is merit in most, but I suspect most consumers don’t spend as much time as I do around wine country minutia. Either way, I enjoy Pinot Noir from RRV and Carneros, cheers!

  15. Thanks David Asbcroft.

  16. Steve,

    Back in the 1991 vintage (and again in the 1992 vintage), the wineries that sourced Pinot Noir grapes from the Sanford & Benedict Vineyard came together to offer a 9-pack of their wines: one bottle each of the six producers’ wines, and three bottles of the cuvee (comprising one-sixth of everyone’s wine, blend by Bruno D’Alfonso of Sanford winery).

    The six participating wineries were Au Bon Climat, Babcock, Foxen, Gainey, Sanford, and Lane Tanner.

    I organized a comparative single-blind tasting of those wines at a friend’s restaurant in Pasadena. Joining us consumers at that tasting were Jim Adelman (Au Bon Climat), Richard Dore (Foxen), Rick Longoria (Gainey), Bruno d’ Alfonso (Sanford) and Lane Tanner (same).

    One AVA. One terroir. One vineyard. One grape variety. One vintage. And yet . . . only one winemaker could guess his own wine in the tasting line-up. (Bruno D’Alfonso — who had the longest winemaking experience with the grapes from that property.)

    That’s how subtle were the nuances between each wine.

    So when you starting trying to tease out the differences between AVAs, be mindful that teasing out the differences between wines made from a single vineyards may be just as vexing.

    Website: http://www.kirktech.com/bob_henry/

    See spreadsheet titled “California Pinots – 1991 Tasting”

    For the 1992 vintage sequel tasting, see spreadsheet titled “California Pinots – 1992 to 1993 Tasting”

    (Note: the spreadsheet has a typo. The cuvee is from the 1992 vintage, not the 1991 vintage as misstated.)

    ~~ Bob

  17. Postscript.

    See my 1994 vintage California Pinot Noir for further AVA / terroir tastings.

    On March 4th, the Sonoma vintners host a trade tasting in Beverly Hills.

    The e-mail invite touts 16 AVAs being represented:

    http://www.sonomawine.com/inthecity/

    From 1:00 PM-3:00 PM, Master Sommelier Evan Goldstein leads a tasting of 28 producers’ Sonoma County Pinot Noirs.

  18. Second postscript,

    My vertical tasting of Sanford Pinot Noirs likewise included a second sampling of the 1991 vintage 9-pack.

    See spreadsheet titled “California Pinots – 1988 to 1997 Sanford Vertical Tasting”

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